James Madison University

JMU Students Help Preserve Memories at VMRC

By: Jordan Pye

PHOTO: DR. Grayson and student Caroline Gray and Professor Joann Grayson confer about her VMRC pictures.

JMU students are taking their psychology studies outside of the classroom and into the minds of the elderly by experimenting with arts and crafts as a form of memory enhancement for Alzheimer’s patients.

The Art Therapy and Memory Enhancement course, led by Dr. Joann Grayson, gives students Psychology 290 course credit for spending three to five hours a week at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community interacting with the residents. Since it began in 2000, the program receives an average of three to seven students each semester who study Alzheimer’s and read about memory-enhancing activity in class, then design their own projects which are observed and rated for levels of patient involvement and whether they stimulate memory.

For example, one past student spent four sessions with an Alzheimer’s patient to make a jewelry box, and part of the memory component of the activity was remembering it from week to week, recalling what steps had been completed and what still needed to be done. Arts and crafts projects are popular choices for students, such as helping patients make bunny-shaped washcloths and puppets as gifts for visiting schoolchildren, painting or sewing simple templates to maintain dexterity, or constructing flower centerpieces from precut materials to decorate the retirement home.

Whatever the activity, students must take into account the special conditions of their subjects while still making the interaction enjoyable.

“Maybe [the residents] have Parkinson’s and their hands shake, or they’re having trouble concentrating, so you have to design things that they’re interested in doing that could enhance memory, that are also doable for them” Grayson said. She added that age doesn’t always lessen the quality of their products, because “even though they’re losing their faculties, they’re sophisticated consumers so they don’t like to produce things that look poorly.” Afterwards, these crafts are available at the VMRC for patients to use on their own.

Another activity for students who are less artistically inclined is making memory boxes. These are kits containing objects that help patients to reminisce about a variety of topics, such as a box full of musical instruments and a set a questions to ask patients about what kinds of music they enjoy and what music they remember. Students have made kits including such subjects as travelling, doing laundry, gardening, having a baby, celebrating winter holidays, and remembering a wedding.

For students who stay two semesters, they sometimes work with a particular person or family to design a personalized memory book for the patient. Students meet with the family to gather materials like family trees, photographs, news clippings, or written stories to include in the book.One such VMRC patient was Alvin Baird, who founded the Baird Attention and Learning Disabilities Center at JMU in 1999. Baird asked for his memory book to feature his contributions to the center and JMU students helping local children through its programs.

“He had been an ADHD child himself so he wanted to do something that would help,” Grayson said. “He had a program out in Montevideo Middle School and he wanted pictures of the students working with children in the program - his legacy to JMU.”

A third option for students is to design materials for the VMRC’s Snoezelen room, which is used for patients who are losing their cognitive capacity. These rooms, originally developed in the Netherlands in the ‘70s as a non-directive form of therapy, provide controlled multisensory stimulation to people with mental disabilities while in a soothing environment.

“It’s high in sensory things that don’t need a verbal response and are low demand on the person: they can just enjoy smells, have music to listen to, watch light displays come on,” Grayson said. “It’s calming for some of the people.” Snoezelen settings are said to reduce distress and agitation for dementia patients, so the materials that students design for the room are graded for their effectiveness. Past student projects have been pop-out books for storytelling, or tactile calendars like those for kindergarteners that help with orientation.

This semester junior Psychology major Chelsea Burke does simple arts and crafts projects with residents at the VMRC twice a week and her first project is molding clay to make memory stones.

“What you’re supposed to do is talk to the resident about a particular friend or activity they used to do, and then write or carve that thing into the stone,” Burke described, although her first attempt with a lower-functioning Alzheimer’s patient was unsuccessful. “The memory stones are definitely something I want to try again with some of the residents who aren't as progressed with their Alzheimer’s, because it seems like a great way to get them to talk about their past and keep them connected with the present,” Burke added.

She hopes to start a wheelchair-painting project, where patients can roll over large sheets of paper covered in acrylic paint to make designs.

PHOTO: JMU student with VMRC resident“I found the idea online, and thought it would be great, considering all of my residents are in wheelchairs,” Burke said. “I feel like it is a great way to get them outside, and active, because either they will be pushing themselves if they can, or a nurse or myself will be pushing them.”  

The program is one of many options within the course Directed Studies in Psychology, and its only prerequisites are completion of GPSYC 101 and submission of a written plan for the intended study to the course coordinator, Grayson, before registration. The course cannot be used for psychology major credit, so it is technically available to all JMU students who meet the requirements and express a strong interest in the subject.

While Burke could pursue more experimental projects with the patients, she’s learned that keeping things simple is the easiest way to communicate and feels that in the long run her personal interaction with them has a much greater impact on their quality of life.

“I feel like my work with the patients is extremely productive,” Burke said. “While I haven't seen a huge increase in ‘memory,’ I do notice that the residents do remember me, and a few of them that I work with often seem to really enjoy my company…I feel my interactions with the residents increase their overall happiness and fulfillment in life.”